From military airplane navigation to EdTech startup: Latvian Experiential Simulations

While the Latvian education system is struggling, the number of #LVstartups in EdTech keeps growing. We’ve previously covered PentaClass, an audio solution to ‘do you hear me at the back?’ problem, as well as the winner of TechChill Baltics pitch contest Edurio. This time it’s Experiential Simulations – an online simulation that already helps hundreds of university students from Ottava (Canada) to Kazan (Russia) in learning entrepreneurship.

The company has been around since 1975 (!) formerly known as CompEngServ Ltd. (CES). The simulations previously created by CES include airplane navigation, military decision makers, air traffic control, as well as real world environments such as cloud formation, marine/ships, air quality, planning, scheduling and the stock market. In 2012 CES became Experiential Simulations and  is now focusing on solutions for teaching students entrepreneurship.

The team calls this development a pivot. James Bowen, his three grown-up children and son-in-law launched Experiential Simulations in Canada 2.5 years ago as a response to the unprecedented changes, and hence emerging opportunities in education and student demands. The team has a great blend of experience in education, gamification, entrepreneurship, sales and marketing. For one, James has co-founded 4 startups, is teaching at 10 universities and has written 4 books on the topic.

Juris Ulmanis, the Latvian co-founder of Experiential Simulations, has spent the last 10 years teaching entrepreneurship, marketing and international business in Bachelor, MBA, and EMBA programs at universities in Europe.  James and Juris have both experienced the changing needs for entrepreneurship education first-hand every day.

“The way entrepreneurship is currently taught in most university programs does not make much sense and universities are fooling themselves.” Juris explains.

“Entrepreneurship cannot be taught in one semester, and is not only about having a ‘great idea’, successful guest speakers, incubators, writing the business plan or presenting a ‘pitch’. Entrepreneurship is about implementing a sustainable business model. Opportunities are everywhere. Recognizing them is not very hard. The ability to implement is.  Young people typically do not have the contacts and life experiences to connect the dots and make it happen. We have developed ‘Traction’ – a simulation that emulates the entrepreneurial mindset – with many factors and options, whereby students can receive a learning by doing experience, a taste of what an entrepreneur goes through.”

Traction’ is already implemented in 11 universities across Canada, the US, Latvia, Poland and Russia. Besides being part of university curriculum, Experiential Simulations also organizes tournaments, where students can compete with each other. By now several hundreds of students have played the game as part of their curriculum and many of them indicated the competitive element as one of their key drivers to take the simulation seriously. The student responses indicated much more learning than one would typically expect from an online game.

A few excerpts from US students’ feedback forms:

“The first lesson we learned is that calculated risks are worth the reward. While we did take a risk selectively building the best management team and taking extra time to develop our product; we feel we could have taken even more risks.”

“We were conservative with our ownership of the company in phase one, so we passed up on funding. If we had that funding we would have spent it on connecting with our customers. Customers should be a priority. We cared very little for customer satisfaction in phase one, and when we finally needed them, they did not know who we were or what we did.”

“We should have evenly spent our money. Since most of our money went to product development, very little was spent on customer discovery. Lastly, we learned that even though we owned a majority of the company that did almost nothing for our score. We should have been more lenient with our ownership.”

“We did not regret selling the majority of our shares but we do regret not pacing when we did sell our shares. We believe that if we had a couple shares left to sell in the last couple rounds we could have come in first place.”

It was interesting to read  what professors had to say about the simulation, as they played it before deciding on adding it to their curriculum. Despite teaching business for years and sometimes having real-life experience, they seem to be learning no less than their students.

“Even though I have gotten Traction Score of only 101 points during my first attempt, I have to say that this business simulation game is a great way to practice  entrepreneurship. The game itself is user-friendly, challenging, and has a great interface. In order to succeed in this game, you have to combine all the concepts and strategies that you have learned so far. I therefore highly recommend Traction for university students, regardless of field and level.” – Chutinon Putthiwanit (China), PhD Student in Management Science, Turiba University, Latvia

As you’d expect from a startup that’s teaching others how to build companies, Experiential Simulations is doing pretty well. They are self-financed, profitable and steadily growing their userbase. Next big step is an MBA program at Dutch University, made up almost entirely of simulations. The program is already accredited and will accept first students in September.